THE ACHIEVEMENT OF A LIFETIME: ALBERT BOURLON (IV/X)


© Presse Sports
Far behind riders of the stature of Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Mark Cavendish, in the history of the Tour de France there have been almost three hundred men who only got a fleeting taste of glory. As the countdown to the start of the race on 7 July continues, letour.fr is retracing the steps of 10 champions who clinched a single stage win. Back in the 1947 Tour, Albert Bourlon went solo in the first Pyrenean stage and brought his adventure to a victorious conclusion 253 kilometres later. It was the longest solo ride in the modern history of the race.

Albert Bourlon flew under the radar in his Tour debut in 1938, the penultimate edition before the war. Although a strong and hard-working power rider, Bourlon’s lack of tactical flair seemed to condemn him to a lifetime in the shadow of other cyclists. Fresh out of the Renault factories, where he had taken on a leading role among trade unionists at the height of the 1936 strikes, the communist worker flopped in the Tour de France —still, nothing compared to the trials and tribulations he went through during World War II. Following his capture and imprisonment in German stalags, he tried to escape again and again until he finally managed to break out. He crossed Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary on foot until reaching Romania… where he even managed to win the Bucharest–Ploiești–Bucharest classic in 1944! When it came to daring escapes, the rider from the Berry region earned a reputation for being as tough as nails, and he was even decorated with the Croix de Guerre. However, when the peloton rolled out from Carcassonne in the 1947 Tour de France, no-one seemed concerned about the France Centre/South-West rider when he jumped right after Jacques Goddet gave the start from his Hotchkiss cabriolet. Even Bourlon had his sights set on making a quick buck by taking the bonus available in Espéraza, about 50 kilometres down the road, and certainly not on reaching Luchon all on his own.
With Marcel Cerdan
It was only when his advantage over the peloton ballooned to 29 minutes near the halfway point that Bourlon started to fancy his chances. Although a terrible climber, he gritted his teeth over the Col du Portet d’Aspet and the Col d’Ares to finish on the Allées d’Étigny with 16 minutes to spare —enough time to freshen up, change clothes and shoot the breeze with Marcel Cerdan before the rest of the bunch crossed the line. Jacques Goddet paid tribute to Bourlon’s stubbornness in the next day’s edition of L’Équipe: “The 253-kilometre course of the fourteenth stage was not too demanding because it did little damage among the big names, but it was still 253 kilometres over a long succession of hills and small mountains. Every single pursuer was convinced that, sooner or later, Bourlon would be found relaxing at a small inn near a river with trout in it, exhausted and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task at hand. What a mistake! Bourlon is one of the last of a dying breed, those that never go to bed until the job is done.”

Bourlon’s solo exploit, virtually unmatchable now that stages tend to have a more reasonable length, is often described as a record, which is true for the post-war era. It is also true that René Pottier rode alone for 325 kilometres to win the stage from Grenoble to Nice in the 1906 Tour. However, that was at a time when the general classification was points-based, so winning by a mile was the same as winning by an inch!